2019 Volume 7 Issue 3 Pages 45-62
The meaning about the origins of Al-Ain, the second largest city of Abu Dhabi Emirate in the UAE, resides in its name, which in Arabic means ‘The spring’. The presence of abundant groundwater has allowed human settlements since the Neolithic period, marking this city as one of the oldest settlements continuously inhabited in the Gulf region. Under the rule of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayan (1918-2004), Al-Ain received special attention in order to preserve its character and identity, due also to the presence of historical heritage which forms a strong sense of belonging for its community. With the establishment of the UAE in 1971, and the institution of its municipality council in 1992, a special ordinance fixed a strict limit on building height, giving also particular attention to conservation of the original landscape formed by the seven ancient oases of palm trees and their irrigation systems of aflaj, an ancient irrigation system common in most arid zones of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean. Despite all these efforts spent in order to keep its original identity, nowadays this approach appears to be scrutinised under the pressures for further expansion and innovation in response to an increasingly challenging economy. With an increasing acceleration in the process of expansion and renovation, most of Al-Ain’s urban fabric, realized after oil discovery in the 1960s, and still belonging to traditional typologies, has been replaced with new constructions inspired by different models, and new large developments have been laid out to cope with the increasing demand for dwellings. After recognition in 2011 of Al-Ain’s archaeological sites and oases as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city’s popularity rose as a tourist destination and place of cultural interest but has revealed in the meantime its systemic fragility. This paper focuses on the process of urban growth according to the nature of place, which characterized Al-Ain’s history and currently forms the substrate of its cultural identity, and the mechanism of conflict/interaction between identity and innovation towards the definition of Al-Ain’s urban transformation and regenerative process.